Last Wednesday saw the start of a new TV series, The Stress Test. Each week, they take a highly ‘stressed’ person and the BBC’s ‘stress professors’ observe them and then give them a ‘stress action plan’.
This week they took Ian Holloway – no relation to our Holloway, as far as I know – who’s manager of Queen’s Park Rangers football club - and a very stressed man. Various people described him in the programme - as ‘a bomb ready to go off’, ‘a live volcano’ and ‘a caged animal’ And, having observed him at work and home, the stress professors gave their action plan. He met twice with an anger management consultant – who actually said some good things. And he was given two relaxation techniques: painting, and tai chi (which as far as I could see was like yoga without having to sit on the floor cross-legged).
Well we’re in a series on ‘The Bible and Present Problems’ – today, the problem of stress. And rather than turning to the BBC for help, we’re turning to the Bible. And our stress professor this morning is going to be the apostle Paul. So would you turn to Philippians 4. And let’s think about:
First, THE CAUSES OF STRESS
It’s common, these days, for conversations to go something like this. ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Well, I’m feeling quite stressed at the moment’ – or, ‘I’m under quite a lot of pressure.’ So what makes us say that? Well, look at this picture:
The stick-person stands for you or me, and the picture shows three potential causes of stress:
Present pressures. It might be working for exams, or performance targets at work, or the demands of children – from the midnight nappy change to the mid-term undergraduate cry for money. The unknown future. It might be job security worries, pension or house price worries, worries about whether a relationship will work out, worries about health, and so on. Ourselves - our temperament – eg, if you’re a perfectionist (as I am), or live or work with one, you’ll know what I mean.
Now let me give you a minute to answer to yourself: what causes you stress? So we can then each have real, live issues in mind as we turn to the Bible. With those things in mind:
Secondly, HOW WE NATURALLY REACT TO STRESS
Imagine you were going for a Sunday afternoon stroll down Jesmond Dene and you met a lion. Not a Disney lion – with the Colgate smile and soft American accent. But a real, live, full-grown lion. That would certainly qualify as a cause of stress. And the BBC stress professors would tell you that your adrenaline levels would go rocketing (that’s the hormone that prepares us for fight or flight). It would take you a nanosecond to work out that fight was not the right option and you’d be off like a shot. Inwardly, you’d feel massive anxiety and fear. Outwardly you’d look suddenly aggressive and selfish – concerned only for ‘no.1’.
Well, that’s a little cameo of how we naturally react to stress: on the inside: anxiety and fear (and if there’s nothing you can do about the situation, add frustration and anger). Then, on the outside, aggression – that’s the ‘fight’ instinct - and selfishness (concern for ‘no.1’) – which is basically the ‘flight’ instinct.
Now, none of us (I assume) has met a lion in Jesmond Dene. But we do know how it would feel. Because we have met, eg, huge, life-changing decisions, or Ofsted, or bereavement, or the prospect of an operation – or whatever it’s been for you. And we know what it’s like to react naturally.
The question is: how can we react supernaturally? How can we react by faith, if we’re believers in the Lord Jesus? That brings us to:
Thirdly, HOW FAITH REACTS TO STRESS – AND WHY
Now let’s bring this issue of stress to the Bible - to Philippians. Paul had planted a church in Philippi, moved on, and was now in prison for his faith, on trial for his life. You may have heard of the Holmes-Rahe stress chart where they give major stresses a score. Eg, the death of a spouse scores highest - 100; getting married scores 50; while a family Christmas scores 12. (You may be thinking, ‘They haven’t met my family.’) So let’s add up the stress factors for Paul as he wrote Philippians. Detention in jail scores 63. Major change of work (no more public preaching) – 29. Major change in recreation (I think we can assume that) – 19. Major change in church attendance (we can certainly assume that) – 19. They don’t score ‘possible imminent execution’ but give that 70, and Paul is well over 200 points - which gives him a 50% chance of stress-related illness. Paul knew as much about stress as any of us. Yet here’s how he reacts, and tells us to react. Let’s start in at Philippians 4.4:
• Rejoice in the Lord (v4)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (v4)
That’s what Paul says to himself under the present pressure of prison and the future fear of execution. And whatever our present pressures and future fears, that’s what he says to us: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ Ie, by faith, look beyond those two arrows in the picture below, to the Lord Jesus - and rejoice in what you have in your relationship with him:
One of our great sources of stress is the fear of losing out – fear that we are losing out, or that we will. Eg, losing out on that university place by not making the grade; or losing out on money through a bad decision; or on our job in a re-structuring; or on marriage or the opportunity of having children. And Paul is reminding us there’s one thing, or rather one person, one relationship with blessings that outweigh every loss I’ve just mentioned and could mention. Paul had basically lost everything and yet look over to Philippians 3.8. He says:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (3.8-9)
He knew that the Lord Jesus had died for the forgiveness of his sins to put him right with God – that’s what ‘righteousness’ means in 3.9. He knew because of Jesus’ coming and death and rising from the dead that God was really there, that God had really forgiven him, that God did really love him, that his life was in God’s hands and that his death would just be the doorway to heaven – from where, looking back, the best things here and now will look very little. All Paul really had left to lose was his life, and turn back to 1.21 to see what he says about that. Contemplating the possible outcomes of release from prison or execution, he says:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (1.21)
Ie, ‘If you take my life, far from losing, I gain the full and final experience of my relationship with Christ in heaven’ – like engagement finally giving way to marriage.
And we need to learn to rejoice like that in what we have in the Lord. And I don’t think we can do that unless we’re reading our Bibles regularly. That habit is how we manage to look, by faith, beyond those two arrows in Picture 2 to the Lord, and what we have in our relationship with him. And if we’re not deeply satisfied in him, if what I’m saying just sounds other-worldly and impractical compared to the BBC stress professors, it shows how weak our grasp on these things is compared to Paul’s faith.
So, ‘Rejoice in the Lord.’ That means: take joy in what we have in our relationship with him.
But it also means: take joy from the fact that he’s in control of everything. Because ‘Lord’ means the one in control of everything. One of the most stressful things is the feeling of being at the mercy of things and people beyond our control. Now some stress is under our control. Eg, we may be able to change jobs, or reduce our mortgage, or get more sleep, or improve a relationship. But we may not be able to. Paul, for example, didn’t have a ‘get out of jail free’ card. But his point is that even if we have no control over a stressful situation, the Lord has total control.
So look again at Picture 2. The crown stands for Jesus. And he is in total control of the present and the future – those two arrows (‘present pressures’ and ‘future fears’) are not in control; Jesus is. And he knows exactly what he’s doing with our lives now and exactly where he’s taking them. If you’re still in chapter 1, look at v12. Paul has been thrown into prison – bringing all his planned evangelism to a halt - yet he says:
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ [ie, being in prison gave him a new captive audience for evangelism and as a result, Paul’s testimony and Paul’s gospel was doing the rounds of the whole Roman guard responsible for him]. (1.12-13)
Ie, Paul looked at all circumstances by faith. He knew Jesus was Lord. So he trusted that everything the Lord took him through was to make him more like Jesus and to make Jesus known. If we had time to look up other passages, we could see that that’s basically God’s plan for us this side of heaven: that we become more like Jesus and make Jesus known (eg, Romans 8.28-30, 1 Peter 2.9-12). And one great cause of stress in our lives is simply that we have other plans. Plans for a 2.1, plans for healthy children, plans for this, plans for that – which may or may not be part of God’s plan to make us more like Jesus and make Jesus known through us. And if we don’t submit our plans to God and his plans (‘… if it’s your will’), things get very stressful – very frustrating – indeed.
That’s the first thing: rejoice in the Lord. The second thing is:
• Be gentle to others (v5)
Let your gentleness be evident to all. (v5)
The word translated ‘gentleness’ means the opposite of aggressive; not exploding; bearing with bad conditions or treatment.
Whereas, like we saw earlier, one of our natural reactions to stress is aggression. Road rage is an obvious example. In my visit on your behalf to the web-site of the American Institute of Stress I also discovered that desk-rage and phone rage is now rampant in American businesses. So how can we be gentle under stress? Eg, towards the boss who makes a totally unreasonable demand on us?
A large part of it is to recognise how much our own egos lie behind our reactions. By nature, I have king-sized ego which, deep down thinks the world should revolve around me, and that you should serve me. The same is true of you. That’s the attitude the Bible calls ‘sin’. And when, eg, the boss makes the unreasonable demand, our stress reaction isn’t just because we’re thinking, ‘I haven’t got time, I physically can’t do that,’ it’s also partly because we’re thinking, ‘This shouldn’t happen to me. I shouldn’t be treated like this.’ I’m not excusing the boss. But simply saying that part of the stress is due to our own egos, our pride.
And the only effective way to break pride is to take it to the cross – which is why I’ve also put Jesus’ death on the cross on that Picture 2 (above). Turn back if you would to Philippians 2.5. This is the very heart of the letter, about the attitude we need to react well under pressure (see 1.27-30). Philippians 2.5 says:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! (2.5-8)
How can we become more gentle under stress? By remembering that Jesus – who really is King, around whom the world really does revolve – got off his throne and became a servant and went through unimaginable treatment and suffering for us. ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,’ Paul says to us.
The BBC stress professors did in fact have the courage to tell this football manager that his ego was his problem. What they didn’t tell him is that only believing Jesus humbled himself to death for us will break our egos. Nothing else is strong enough to crack the nut of human pride. So next time we find ourselves thinking, ‘I don’t deserve this kind of treatment; this kind of boss; these grotty children (terrible toddlers or ungrateful teenagers) - or whatever it is - remember the cross and have the attitude of Jesus. Thirdly,
• Don’t be anxious, but pray instead (vv6-7)
[End of v5:] The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (vv5-7)
At the end of v5, ‘The Lord is near’ could mean Jesus’ future return is near. But in the Bible, it often means he’s near now, he’s with us, he’s on our side, he’s in control of our situation, he’s able to help. Eg, one of the Psalms says, ‘The LORD is near to all who call on him.’ (Psalm 145.18) I think it may mean both, here, but I think it must mean ‘near’ in that second sense: the Lord is not distant, or uncaring, or unable to help; he’s near, so, v6:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (v6)
Now the word translated ‘anxiety’ could also be translated ‘concern’. Here, Paul’s talking about concern that’s gone wrong – that’s become anxiety. But it needs saying that it’s not wrong to be concerned as a Christian – eg, concerned about health or our children’s future. But when concern becomes anxiety, worry, churning the concern over and over in our minds, God says: don’t be like that.
Because anxiety basically comes from living as if God was not in control, and from trying to control circumstances ourselves. Now we do have some control in most circumstances - but only some. Eg, we have some control over an interview, or a house move - but only some. And nothing is more stressful than trying to control circumstances (by thinking, worrying and willing them to turn out a certain way) when in fact we are far from totally in control. For proof of how stressful that is, just think back to what it’s been like supporting the England football team at Euro 2004 – or Tim Henman at Wimbledon.
So what’s the alternative? To do whatever we can in a situation, and to underlie that with 100% trust in the Lord. And expressing that trust in prayer - which is why v6 doesn’t just say, ‘Do not be anxious about anything,’ but goes on, ‘but in everything…’ pray. Instead of churning the concern over and over in our minds, we’re to get it off our minds in prayer to the one person who really is in total control. And I hope many of us can identify with the result of that in v7:
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (v7)
A while ago I mentioned preparing for the Cambridge Mission as an illustration. I had a few days to go, I was feeling ill, I had too much to do in too little time. And my anxiety came to a head and it was as if the Lord was getting me to see that either I was going to trust in myself, in which case it would be stressful all the way. Or I was going to trust in him. And I took time out to pray and crossed that line of genuinely trusting the week to him. And it was the most pressurised and yet the most peaceful time of my year. To the extent that we trust God and pray, we’ll have peace under pressure. Finally,
• Learn to be content in Christ (vv10-13)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me - put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (vv8-9)
And if you read all of Philippians you don’t just hear from Paul what a faith reaction to stress should be, you see it in him. Eg, v10:
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. [Remember, Paul’s in prison and after a delay, the Philippians have just managed to get some money through to him. So he’s glad - but he goes on, v11:] I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need [which is one cause of stress], and I know what it is to have plenty [which can be another cause of stress – eg, having things and money brings stress]. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (vv10-13)
So Paul is saying, I rejoice in your help – but not because my morale depends on circumstances. By putting him in all kinds of stressful circumstances (eg, need and plenty), the Lord had trained him not to find his contentment in circumstances at all - but in the Lord. Which brings us back to where we began: to rejoicing in what we have in our relationship with Christ – independent of circumstances – and to trusting he’s in control of those circumstances. But Paul adds one last thing, namely: trusting that he’ll strengthen us to cope with whatever circumstances he puts us in. Look at v13:
I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (v13)
Now that has to be taken in context. It does not mean ‘I can do absolutely everything through him who gives me strength – eg, I can pass my driving test without ever having got into a car before, through him who gives me strength.’ No, in context, ‘I can do everything’ means, ‘I can live in every circumstance the Lord puts me in.’ Eg, I was talking to someone a while back whose fear was staying single and not being able to cope with that. But faith says: whatever circumstance the Lord puts us in, he will strengthen us to cope with it. Equally, I was talking to some married friends who are fearful of bringing children into, and up in, a world like this. And the same applies: whatever circumstance the Lord puts us in, he will strengthen us to cope with it. Paul didn’t mean that living in every circumstance the Lord puts us in will be easy. But he did mean, that by God’s strength and help, it will be possible.
So what would the apostle Paul say if he was invited to be the BBC’s stress professor? Would he just give us a couple of relaxation techniques (a spot of painting and some tai chi) to cope with our present pressures and future fears? No, he’d remind us that there is Someone above the present and the future. He’d remind us that Jesus is Lord and that our greatest need is to receive him as Lord of our lives. And for those who’ve done that, he’d remind us that our next greatest need in a stressful world is to trust his loving control of our lives, and to value what we have in him above everything else.